Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics
Lecture by Janina Wellmann: Why rhythm matters:
Conceptual resonances between science and humanities
To all intents and purposes, a history of the concept of rhythm has never been written. What is rhythm? The question has been answered in as many ways as it has been posed by various disciplines along anthropological, sociological, linguistic or musicological and biological lines of enquiry or shared historical contexts. In modern everyday understanding, rhythm has come to be associated almost exclusively with musical experience. Over the last hundred years, however, there have been a variety of attempts to frame rhythm as a concept mediating between biology, culture and aesthetics.
My enquiry into rhythm will be twofold. Firstly, I will study epistemological attempts to navigate rhythm’s ambiguous character as a quasi-biological given versus a scientific or aesthetic construct. Secondly, I will argue historically that around 1800 a new episteme of rhythm crystallized that simultaneouslyformed the foundation of new aesthetic concepts in literary and music theory and was articulated in scientific theories. It was an event taking place in various guises and fields of knowledge at the same time, and responded to the quest for rules according to which both nature and human creativity—poetry, music, the visual arts—in equal measure bring forth their works and for the law that governs their constantly changing configurations.